The setting is Harlem, a black neighborhood in the northeast corner of Manhattan in New York City. The time is the mid-1960s. It is twilight on a Friday. As the novel opens, Alfred Brooks, an African American seventeen-year-old high-school dropout, waits on his apartment building's front stoop for his best friend, James. When Alfred was ten years old, his father left home; when he was thirteen, his mother died of pneumonia. On both occasions, Alfred's pal James stood by him. Now, Alfred lives with his Aunt Pearl and her three young daughters, Charlene, Sandra, and Paula.
James is late, and Alfred suspects a problem. Alfred believes his friend may be in bad company. Alfred hurries to the basement clubroom where he finds James with Major, Hollis, and Sonny. While Alfred tries to persuade James to go to the movies with him as they had planned, Alfred inadvertently reveals that his employers, the Epsteins, leave money in the cash register of their grocery store on Friday nights so that they don't handle money on the Jewish Sabbath. Major, who has been mocking Alfred for his subservient duties at the Jewish store, quickly sees an opportunity for easy cash. Major leads Hollis, Sonny, and James on a raid of the grocery; Alfred refuses to go along.
After the others have left, Alfred suddenly remembers that the Epsteins have installed a new silent burglar alarm. He tries, too late, to warn James. Several police cruisers descend on the grocery. Hoping that James has escaped, Alfred searches for him at their secret cave in the park.
Later, Hollis, Sonny, and Major blame Alfred for James' capture. The three attack Alfred, but he escapes a savage beating when two policemen appear in the distance, scaring off the gang members.
The first chapter is rich with symbolic imagery. Ragged, skinny children play with empty beer cans. Police sirens fill the night and remind Alfred of Harlem's despair and the conflict with authority. Yet there are lovers in the park, music, and dreams.
The setting is crucial to the novel. In this opening chapter, Lipsyte provides his first descriptions of Alfred's Harlem. As Lipsyte presents it, the atmosphere of Harlem is repressive. The sun, often a literary symbol of hope and promise, melts into the hopelessness of "the dirty gray Harlem sky." Even the air is rancid and foul; Lipsyte describes it as "sour air." Men drag card tables out onto the sidewalks, and we can imagine the shrill sound of table legs scraping across concrete. Lipsyte's description recalls the sound of cars crunching through garbage and broken glass. These sounds underscore the overall feeling of the backdrop that Lipsyte is painting. He wants us to hear those sounds; he wants us to see the gray sky; he wants us to smell the sour air. Lipsyte wants us to feel the grit of the neighborhood and to recreate this atmosphere in our imaginations.
Two dominating images introduced in this chapter are the clubhouse and the cave. The clubhouse is a shabby basement room with a naked light bulb. Major dominates it with his mocking pessimism. It is a home for lost souls who are going nowhere, and Alfred regrets that James chooses to spend his time there. When the two were younger, they shared their fantasies and ambitions in the secret cave. James enthusiastically collected rocks, planning to exhibit them at school in the fall. However, when he took them home from the cave, his drunken father dumped them down the air shaft. In fact, most of James' dreams have been destroyed in a similar way, symbolically.
In this chapter, Lipsyte effectively combines dramatic action with exposition. He introduces the reader to major themes of the novel, key characters, and images that will recur and come to symbolize important contrasts in Alfred's life.
The major themes of The Contender center around Alfred's growth from a somewhat lost high school dropout to a young man with discipline and realistic goals. This is a story of choices. In this chapter, Lipsyte portrays Alfred choosing to resist peer pressure and refusing to participate in the burglary of his employer's grocery.
Another major theme of the novel is the contrast between hope and despair. Despite his father's abandonment and his mother's death, Alfred finds a source of hope in Aunt Pearl's loving wisdom. Although he has dropped out of school, Alfred has not yet surrendered to the sense of loss that surrounds him; his friend James apparently has.
Several key characters, introduced by Lipsyte in this chapter, immediately align themselves with major themes in the novel. Alfred is the protagonist, the main character around whom the action centers. Confused though he may be, Alfred is making an effort to be responsible and to help support his household. He works as a stock boy at a grocery store and gives most of his pay to his Aunt Pearl. He refuses to accept Major's stereotypical mocking of the Jewish employers. Alfred seeks escape and hope through his private dreams, once shared with James in the privacy of their secret cave and now renewed on Friday nights at the movies.
Major is the antagonist, the main opponent of Alfred. Major's power is wholly negative. He enjoys his role as bully and viciously teases Alfred for trying to succeed. James is caught between Alfred and Major, and he is rapidly losing hope in his future.
A brief appearance by the physically disabled Henry, who loves boxing, foreshadows a crucial change in Alfred's life. Henry invites Alfred to Donatelli's Gym. Aunt Pearl, who also appears only in passing, is a stabilizing force who provides Alfred with at least some guidance, something he will need more of during the course of the novel.
Harlem section of New York City, in northern Manhattan; it borders on the Harlem River channel and the East River; here, the area traditionally inhabited by African Americans in the 1900s.
Old Uncle Alfred Major contemptuously implies that Alfred is an "Uncle Tom" [Informal], a black whose behavior toward whites is regarded as fawning or servile. The term refers to the main character, an elderly black slave, in Harriet Beecher Stowe's antislavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852).
synagogue a building or place used by Jews for worship and religious study. Here, it relates to the Jewish Sabbath, which runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and is observed by the Epsteins, the owners of the grocery store where Alfred works.
squeeze the eagle to be stingy; a reference to the insignia of the eagle on U.S. currency. Here, it implies that the Jewish grocers are reluctant to let go of their money, a racist stereotype.
skull caps light, closefiting, brimless caps, usually worn indoors. Here, the reference is to yarmulkes, which are worn by Jewish men in (and sometimes outside of) synagogue as a sign of respect for God.
The Man [slang] here, a reference to authority, specifically to white authority and the police, even though some policemen in the novel are black.